Over the last 30 years, many different versions of Windows have come and gone. In the end, the Windows NT kernel conquered the PC world, powering everything from the hard-to-kill Windows XP to phones and Xbox with Windows 10.
But some of the Windows one-hit-wonders turned out to be more important in retrospect than they seemed at the time, while others are justly forgotten. Anyway, without further ado, here's our top 10 of long-lost versions of Windows…
- Also check out: Windows boot screens through the ages
Windows 2 for Office
Microsoft is making less and less money from Windows and more and more money from Office these days. Office has always been the software that showcased Windows features, and indeed some Windows features were built to power Office.
That goes all the way back to the very first versions of Word and Excel on Windows in 1987, which came bundled with a runtime version of Windows 2. When you started up Excel or Word, Windows 2 started up as well to run it – and when you were done with the program and closed it, Windows also closed and dropped you back to DOS.
Windows NT 3.51 for Alpha, MIPS and PowerPC
When Microsoft announced that Windows 8 would also run on the ARM CPU – first as Windows RT and then as Windows Phone 8 – it wasn't the first time that Windows had strayed from the Intel x86 CPUs that are usually seen as its defining hardware.
In 1995 Windows NT 3.51 ran on IBM's PowerPC chip as well as DEC's Alpha and the MIPS processor, which NT had already supported since version 3.1 (in 1993). Microsoft had wanted to release NT 3.5 with support for PowerPC, but they had to wait until IBM finished debugging the chip and they didn't want to delay NT 3.5 any longer.
When Compaq bought DEC, it abandoned the Alpha processor for the ill-fated Itanium, and Microsoft built a version of Windows NT for that too. The idea of the Hardware Abstraction Layer that let NT run on different processor architectures is what allowed Windows to run on ARM all these years later.
Windows for Pen Computing
Tablet PCs weren't the first time Microsoft tried to launch a PC with a pen. Back in 1992, Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 brought handwriting recognition, a notepad app you could write into and an on-screen keyboard to Windows 3.1. There was a version for Windows 95 as well, Pen Computing 2.0.
Windows 3.11 eXecute In Place on the Omnibook 300
If your laptop or tablet has an SSD, the operating system boots up pretty quickly – but Windows 3.11 could do that back in 1993.
Ultraportable systems like the HP Omnibook 300 used a version of Windows that ran from eXecute In Place (XIP) ROM, the equivalent of flash memory, which meant Windows could boot and Office could start up almost as quickly as you could turn on the (monochrome) screen. And if it ran out of power, you could run it off four AA batteries…
Windows for Work
In 1993, Microsoft got serious about networking for small businesses with Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which took the peer-to-peer networking of Windows 3.1 for Workgroups (yes, Microsoft was the master of confusing product names even back then) and added remote access and NetWare compatibility to make it a serious competitor for the then-leader Novell NetWare.
Microsoft also touted the idea of Windows for Work (codenamed Strider), an embedded version of Windows for fax machines, laser printers and other machinery (which quickly got it nicknamed 'Windows for Washing Machines').
Windows for Work never shipped – but Windows 3 did make it into some cash registers and even the in-flight entertainment systems for Virgin Atlantic and Qantas where it was still in use in 2008.
Embarrassingly, the DÉCOR system used by air traffic control at the Paris Orly airport to tell pilots about the visibility on the runways still runs on Windows 3.1 – and it crashed in November 2015.
Windows Embedded and CE
Microsoft made its first foray into the embedded space with Windows CE, which didn't stand for Compact Edition – or Consumer Edition, or, Microsoft would claim, anything in particular.
Originally produced for 'handheld PCs' and pocket organisers in 1996 (including a short-lived tablet operating system), Windows CE was also the basis of Microsoft's Auto PC system for in-car systems, and for various set-top boxes and industrial machinery. It's best known for powering Windows Mobile handsets.
In parallel, Microsoft also had some success with the embedded version of Windows NT, which it launched in 1997 by having a Scalability Day where Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer appeared on stage with an NT-powered ATM (they used the PIN code 1111 to take money out of the ATM with a card that's still in the Microsoft museum in Redmond).
Windows Embedded was rebuilt on top of Windows XP and subsequent versions of Windows, as a modular, locked-down operating system that became very popular – running everything from airport display systems to abattoirs, and most of the world's ATMs.
Media Center PC and Tablet PC
Today you can buy a PC-on-a-stick or a Surface tablet and they both run the same version of Windows. You could have Windows on a TV or tablet with Windows XP as well; Microsoft made two special versions of XP.
The Tablet PC version is better known, but Windows XP Media Center Edition (with the codename Freestyle) came out in 2002, though you could only get it if you bought a high-end home theatre PC.
In the UK, Elonex built the PC right into a TV screen, so you could watch TV live or use the Media Center DVR to record programmes to watch later. Eventually, Media Center turned into software that came with every copy of Windows – until it was dropped in Windows 10.
Origami and Haiku
Long before the iPad came out in 2010 or even the iPhone in 2007, Microsoft showed off a tiny, thin, touch-driven PC at the WinHeC conference in 2005 – Bill Gates talked about all-day battery life in a 500g package and an $800 price tag.
The device, codenamed Haiku, was actually a wooden mock-up but in 2006 Microsoft started a viral marketing campaign for rather chunkier devices under the name Project Origami.
These emerged the same year as UMPCs – 8-inch Ultra Mobile PCs with touchscreens and a keyboard split across the two bottom corners. The best known model was the Samsung Q1 but you could also download the Origami Experience software pack for other touch PCs.
Windows Home Server
"Mommy, why is there a server in the house?" asked the parody children's book that Microsoft produced in 2007 to promote Windows Home Server. The answer was that Microsoft wanted to produce somewhere you could keep all your photos, music, videos and files that wasn't a NAS device running Linux, and that would be a smarter and simpler way of providing reliable storage than RAID.
Instead of forcing you to buy the exact same drive, or wasting space on a larger drive, WHS used smart software called Drive Extender to keep multiple copies of your files securely spread across multiple drives. It was a bit too clever and pricey for many home users – Windows Home Server systems were more expensive than a simple NAS.
But they were so popular with small businesses that the OEMs saw a new market, and asked for lots of business-level features in the next version – that turned Windows Home Server into an overcomplicated, overpriced system that abandoned many of the features that had made it popular in the first place, and the 2011 version was the last.
Businesses can get the best bits of Windows Home Server in Windows Server. Home users turned to the cloud, but now that OneDrive only offers the amount of storage that Microsoft can afford to provide for the cost of an Office subscription, Redmond doesn't really have a home storage solution.
The Windows that never were
The version of Windows Vista that shipped – and became a watchword for Windows problems because so few PCs had the right hardware to run it properly – wasn't the Longhorn operating system we'd been waiting for since 2003 (and that Microsoft had been working on since 2001). Building Windows based on .NET hadn't worked well and in 2004 Microsoft started again, ending up with Vista.
Longhorn wasn't the first version of Windows not to get finished. What would have been Windows 96 was codenamed both Cleveland and Nashville, and some of the promised IE 4 integration shipped as an update.
And in 1999 Microsoft was working on Neptune, a very different take on Windows that would have done things like saving files automatically; its 'Activity Center' and customisable 'Starting Places' page may seem more familiar (think of the Windows Phone hubs and the Start menu).
Neptune was going to add the Windows NT kernel to the successor to Windows 98 and Odyssey would follow Windows 2000. When Neptune development got bogged down, Microsoft combined the two projects into Whistler – and that became Windows XP.
Longhorn's codename came from a bar in the Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort (close enough to Seattle for a lot of Microsoft developers to visit) that you have to pass when you go from one mountain to the other. It was meant to be the version of Windows between Whistler/XP and Blackcomb – the planned successor to Vista (although Microsoft changed the codename to Vienna when work began on Windows 7).
More recently, we never saw Midori – that was a research operating system that would have completely rebuilt Windows and the way Windows applications are fashioned, although pieces of it have ended up in other places at Microsoft.